Propaganda: Power & Persuasion – innovative remote speech-to-text tour

This week I attended a landmark event with my wife Joanna. We went to a guided tour of the British Library’s ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’ exhibition, which was made accessible by STAGETEXT via live speech-to-text (STT) technology transmitted over the internet. This was the first time that I’d attended an event like this using hand-held devices and the first time that this access has been made available at the British Library.  I was really intrigued to see if it would actually work. I’ve attended quite a few conferences recently with remote speech-to-text captioning shown on large screens and I’ve found that a lot of the time it doesn’t work well because often the wi-fi connection is lost or there is a computer problem, causing the speaker to have to pause for long periods of time before the connection is re-established and the problem fixed. This causes a lot of frustration for everyone.

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I needn’t have worried. We were all given our own hand-held tablets while the tour guide, Jude England, who is lead curator of the exhibition and Head of Social Sciences, spoke into a mobile phone, which was then transmitted simultaneously via remote speech-to-text onto our tablet screens. It all worked perfectly. This is in large part due to the careful preparation done beforehand by Roger the technical advisor at STAGETEXT, who on discovering that there was no wi-fi available in the basement of the British Library where the exhibition was being held, had spent the previous two days there setting up a temporary wi-fi connection and making sure that it would work well on the day.

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Deepa from STAGETEXT and Ria from the British Library, have also worked hard at facilitating access for this deaf and hard of hearing group tour, something which they both feel very passionate about. I found it easy to look at the speech-to-text on my tablet while looking at the exhibits and listening to Jude as the hearing loop system worked really well too. It was possible to change the font sizes and colours of the text on the tablet, which also makes it easier for visually impaired people to read it. I’ve been on quite a few different tours now with lip-speakers and BSL interpreters, but this makes it so much easier for me, as I find trying to understand the lip-speakers really difficult and tiring. It was great that I didn’t have to rely on Joanna to explain to me what the guide had said afterwards and this was really refreshing.

The tour itself was really fascinating and insightful. Jude explained how the exhibition had been put together and what it was all about in such a way that when I walked round it myself after the tour, what she said seemed to make perfect sense as I really understood what the exhibition was all about. She started off by talking about the various definitions of propaganda and how this has long been debated. On the wall, there was a quote by David Welch, a British historian born in 1950, which I thought summed it up well: “Propaganda is really no more than the communication of ideas designed to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way”. Jude explained that propaganda has been around for centuries and has been used by governments and rulers from Roman times, to Napoleon and right through to the modern day.

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The term was invented by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, and originated from the idea of ‘propagating’ messages, but it now has a negative connotation, and has been replaced by the softer term ‘public relations’.

Propaganda also cuts through boundaries and has been used extensively by many regimes and governments across the world. I was surprised by this, as to me, the term ‘propaganda’ conjures up images of Fascist or Communist rulers and dictators showing images of hard-working proletarian peasants or soldiers fighting for the cause in places like Russia, China or Nazi Germany, but this exhibition also showed posters from democracies such as Britain and the US, for instance the First and Second World War posters urging men to join up and posters from the British Empire of the 1920s showing a very wholesome young British family sailing on a British ship with India ahead of them and a similar one showing them on a ship looking at a battleship opposite in front of the Rock of Gibraltar.

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Jude told us that this British Library exhibition focuses on the propaganda just used in the last century, showcasing items from the incredible 150 million items stored in the British Library. The last century has really been the age of propaganda, as mass communication via radio, TV, newspapers and the internet have made it an extremely effective and powerful means of communication to the masses.

The exhibition was divided into 6 main sections: Origins, Nation, Enemy, War, Health and Today. We were taken round each section and Jude explained what they were all about. The biggest section was the one on war, which was about how states make extensive use of propaganda to maintain morale during wartimes, to turn people against the enemy and to gain support from neutral nations. There were some great posters from the First and Second World Wars encouraging men to enlist to fight the War such as the famous American ‘I Want You’ poster and the British enlistment posters.

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Also, there were some Nazi Germany posters. There was a really poignant one, encouraging “All Germany to listen to the Fuhrer with the People’s Radio”. The Nazis produced very cheap wireless sets to encourage the nation to listen to German radio, considered “the voice of the nation”, but the catch was that the radios were designed with limited range, which prevented ordinary Germans from receiving foreign broadcasts.

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Another major highlight of the exhibition for me was the section on Health. Initially, I was surprised that health was considered to be propaganda and included in this exhibition. Jude explained that it was considered the most controversial section of the exhibition when they were planning it and a topic of much debate. However, as she talked about what this section was about, it did make sense to me that it was included and I found it really interesting.

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Health, in a propaganda sense, relates to any public health message to the nation via a state, which relates to some aspect of a person’s health, for instance it could be to persuade people to cut down on drinking or smoking, to grow their own vegetables, as in times of rationing in war, to observe better road safety, as in the British children’s ‘Tufty Club’ or the ‘Green Cross Code Man’. They also showed posters from the famous 1980s AIDS campaign, which significantly reduced the rates of transmission of AIDs.

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The final section was about propaganda today. The main message of this section was to show how the internet and social media is being used to transmit powerful messages instantly and globally without respecting any barriers or limitations. Jude asked the question of whether social media is a force for good or not. Sometimes it is, such as when it was used during the recent Arab Springs and sometimes it isn’t, such as during the recent London riots. Whether it is or not, it is an incredibly powerful force, transmitting messages with a speed and magnitude that has never been possible before in human history. As an example, the exhibition showed Barack Obama’s famous Tweet “Four more years” after he won his most recent US re-election, which has been the most re-tweeted Tweet ever (well over half a million times).

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For me, having lost my hearing fairly recently, this tour was the most accessible that I’ve been on so far. I liked the fact that I could glance at the exhibition while reading the hand-held device. I realise that good preparation and hard work are key to making tours like this seamless, and for that I commend Roger from STAGETEXT. I hope that there will be many more remote speech-to-text guided tours of major exhibitions around the country as it has great potential to increase accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people.

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